The Nature of True Virtue – Love to God (Pt. 3)



Love to God (Pt. 1) // Love to God (Pt. 2)

The Inconsistence of Virtue without Supreme Love to God

Edwards continues by noting the scheme of other moral writers who do not wholly exclude ‘love to God,’ but wrongfully prioritize that love as subsequent to one’s love of creation and God’s creatures. This is a simple inconsistence because it does not follow its foundational principle – i.e. love to being – to its full expression in love to the Being of beings. Edwards reveals this inconsistence with a series of ‘if…then’ statements, all of which intimate this essential principle: “If true virtue consists partly in respect to God, then doubtless it consists chiefly in it.”[1] The very idea of God signifies a being that infinitely surpasses all other beings, and therefore anyone who is inclined to love being ought to be inclined to chiefly love God. So then, Edwards gives two options in regards to true virtue: 1) one can be an atheist, or 2) one can primarily and essentially love God. It is impossible to believe in God, understanding virtue’s primary object to be ‘being in general,’ and not love Him supremely.

Further, one may not love God, yet love others, because they are exercising a particular benevolence rather than a general benevolence. This principle is already ridiculed by most people, even if they do not realize it – e.g. self-love: good-will ought not to be confined to a single person. The same principle can be applied to a private or particular system; good-will ought not to be restricted to some and not others. Edwards gives three reasons why particular benevolence or “private affections” cannot be of the nature of true virtue.

  1. “Such a private affection, detached from general benevolence and independent of it, as the case may be, will be against general benevolence, or of a contrary tendency; and will set a person against general existence, and make him an enemy to it.”[2] Selfishness sets a man against the general public. By exalting private priorities above and independent of the priorities of ‘being in general,’ one becomes an enemy to anything that is not for the good of the private appetite. This is why selfish people are often detested and disliked.
  2. “Private affection, if not subordinate to general affection, is not only liable, as the case may be, to issue in enmity to being in general, but has a tendency to it as the case certainly is, and must necessarily be.”[3] Particular benevolence exalts a particular object over and against ‘being in general,’ and therefore, it necessarily becomes hostile to that which it is insubordinate to. For example, because God is infinitely worthy of our supreme love, and because he thus demands our supreme love, any private affection that does not subordinate itself to that sovereign law establishes hostility towards that decree.
  3. “Not only would affection to a private system, insubordinate to a regard to being in general, have a tendency to oppose the supreme object of virtuous affection, as its effect and consequence, but would become itself an opposition to that object.”[4] Not only does the object of the private affection necessarily become antagonistic towards God, but the affection itself is placed supremely above God. This is idolatrous in reference to the particular object that is exalted, and it is prideful in reference to the one who employs private affections above and against that which is infinitely greater – God – and the proper order of things that He has decreed.

Edwards offers a concluding statement: “no affection limited to any private system, not dependent on, nor subordinate to being in general, can be of the nature of true virtue.”[5] Moreover, “no affection whatsoever to any creature, or any system of created beings, which is not dependent on, nor subordinate to a propensity or union of the heart to God, the supreme and infinite Being can be of the nature of true virtue.”[6]

[1] Jonathan Edwards, The Nature of True Virtue (Ann Arbor Paperbacks) (University of Michigan Press, 1960), 17.

[2] Ibid., 19.

[3] Ibid., 20.

[4] Ibid., 21.

[5] Ibid., 22.

[6] Ibid., 22.


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